Republicans, Biden administration clash over Iran’s role in Hamas attacks on Israel

On Wednesday, 42 Republican senators sent President Joe Biden a letter calling on him not to lift sanctions on Iran. Secretary of State Antony Blinken summarily dismissed the call the following day.
The US Capitol building in Washington, DC. (Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad)
The US Capitol building in Washington, DC. (Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Wednesday, 42 Republican senators, led by Florida’s Marco Rubio, sent President Joe Biden a letter calling on him not to lift sanctions on Iran—an issue currently being negotiated in Vienna in the context of restoring the 2015 nuclear deal—because of Hamas’ unprecedented volleys of missile attacks on Israel, which has been ongoing since May 10.

However, the senators’ call was summarily dismissed the following day by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Two Parallel Universes

Blinken would not comment on whether Iran was supporting Hamas or had played a role in its current assault. Rather, he maintained that even if it were so, that would only be one more reason to revive the nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA.)

From Blinken’s perspective, a nuclear-armed Iran would be all the more aggressive in its malign activities. Therefore, it is the highest priority of the Biden administration in the Middle East to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

From the perspective of the senators, lifting sanctions would provide Iran billions of dollars for its malign activities. Moreover, as they and other critics charge, the JCPOA is fatally flawed, and restoring it will not stop Iran’s nuclear program.

The senators’ letter called on Biden to “take all steps necessary to hold Tehran accountable and under no circumstances, provide sanctions relief to Iran.”

Later that same day, after the letter’s release, the BBC’s State Department correspondent asked Blinken a two-part question: “What evidence, if any, does the US see of Iranian involvement in the attacks on Israel, given that Hamas has been using drones and long-range missiles?” and “How do you respond to Republican calls for the administration to stop negotiations in Vienna because of that?”

Blinken separated the question’s two parts. He affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself, which, presumably, addresses the rocket threat.

Blinken, however, was dismissive about the significance of any possible Iranian role in Hamas attacks.

“I don’t have anything to offer on whether there is Iranian involvement or not in what’s taking place,” he stated.

But “when it comes to any of the malign activities that Iran may or may not be engaged in, whether its support for terrorism” or “efforts to destabilize other countries” or “other actions that we find objectionable,” that “only underscores the importance of doing everything we can to make sure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon,” he stated.

The Obama administration was criticized for focusing so narrowly on concluding the JCPOA that it overlooked almost all other instances of Iranian aggression in the region. Arguably, Biden’s team, which includes many who served in the Obama administration, is doing the same.

Problems in Biden Approach

To the extent the Biden administration has absorbed that criticism, it intends to address the challenges that Iran poses in two stages. However, it has articulated no coherent plan for implementing them.

The first stage is to restore the JCPOA. That is the goal of the indirect talks being held in Vienna, and the same person who represented the US in the Obama-era negotiations that produced the 2015 deal now represents the US in Vienna.

Assuming the JCPOA is restored, the next stage will be to address the other malign dimensions of Iran’s policies—as Blinken, himself, described them on Wednesday.

But if the nuclear-related sanctions are lifted, what incentive will Iran have to comply with the new US demands? The administration claims there are other, non-nuclear sanctions, which can be maintained and even increased.

However, if those sanctions are so onerous as to constitute a serious incentive for Iran to moderate its aggressive policy on other issues, why should it return to the JCPOA?

Indeed, that is precisely the issue that is blocking agreement in the talks in Vienna.

Iran wants all sanctions lifted—including those imposed by the Trump administration. However, that is contrary to the Biden administration’s plan to use some sanctions to reach an agreement on other aspects of Iran’s aggressive policies.

Thus, current US policy risks Iran expanding its malign activities throughout the Middle East—including in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, while the US remains narrowly focused on the JCPOA, which may or may not be restored.

Unprecedented Rocket Barrage reflects Iranian Support to Hamas

The range and number of Hamas rockets have increased considerably since its last major conflict with Israel, seven years ago. That seemed to take Israel, as well as the US, by surprise.

Indeed, at the start of the current round of fighting, an ordinarily well-informed Washington DC analyst assured Kurdistan 24 that nothing was so much new in Hamas’ attack. And to the extent there might be new elements, they certainly did not involve Iran, because Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade of the Gaza strip, which prevents the import of military materiel.

Yet he could scarcely have been more wrong! “The number of rockets fired each day is unprecedented,” The New York Times wrote on Thursday.

As a general rule of thumb, if an organization suddenly demonstrates a major, unexpected leap in capabilities, there is a significant chance it has received help from a more sophisticated entity.

Although Egypt and Israel have largely prevented Hamas from smuggling rockets into Gaza, the Times reported, Hamas has “developed [its] own production skills,” a program that it has pursued, “aided with know-how from Iran.”

“Iran has played a key role in helping” Hamas to produce “the deadly weapons arsenal that has allowed it to hit targets inside Israel, according to Western intelligence officials,” Con Coughlin, Defense Editor for the British paper, The Daily Telegraph, wrote on Friday.

“Senior Hamas commanders are believed to have made regular visits to Iran, where they have undergone training in the production and operation of sophisticated weapons systems,” Coughlin continued.

“The collaboration between Iran and Hamas has resulted in the organization having far more effective weapons,” a senior Western intelligence official told Coughlin. “Iran’s assistance has resulted in significant improvements in terms of range, precision, and the extent of destructions the weapons can cause.”

Qassim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) until his assassination last year, as he arrived in Baghdad from Damascus, “took personal charge of overseeing Hamas’s arms build-up,” Coughlin added.

Notably, Soleimani was the central figure in orchestrating the Iraqi assault in October 2017 that followed Kurdistan’s independence referendum.

Editing by Khrush Najari